Masterworks 1

Beethoven’s Eroica: A Salute to Heroes

A photo of composer Austin Jaquith sitting at his piano.

Heldenleben 2020

What does it mean to live a heroic life? Heroes of the past have inspired us by their selfless acts of bravery and service to the survival and flourishing of others; fighting indomitable monsters, sailing deep waters, scaling great heights, and facing impossible odds. One of the interesting questions that arose while many of us were comfortably enduring Coronavirus lock down was the nature of heroism when confronting a microscopic adversary. Under most circumstances, we might not be inclined to think of first responders, delivery drivers, medical personnel, or any other number of individuals as de facto heroes (as grateful as we are for their service), but under the shadow of an unseen foe, routine acts suddenly carried greater risk. The personal cost of delivering a package for Amazon, caring for the sick in an emergency room, or packing meat in Indiana was suddenly anything but routine. Yet, to the immense gratitude of the rest of us, these individuals kept delivering, kept caring, and kept packing. Rather than being celebrated individuals taking on tangible enemies, our heroes were nameless and often unseen. Rather than returning home in victory to the adulation of crowds, they returned each night to their homes in obscurity. While they will never be known by name, we will remember what they did for us, and be forever in debt to their service. Heldenleben 2020, though only a token, is an encomium to each and every one of these individuals.

My musical response to the thoughts above proceeds as follows. Two themes, each representing heroism, form the backbone of the work. The first to appear is a quotation from the work’s titular inspiration, Ein Heldenleben.

This theme represents ancient heroes, and is suitably bombastic and dramatic.

While this first section unfolds, the landscape is reminiscent of Richard Strauss, the composer of the original Ein Heldenleben, but the only direct quotation is the short theme at the beginning. The second theme portrays our modern heroes: it is more pulsating and restrained, with occasional outbursts of melody.

Both of these themes are interwoven with a motif representing the adversary. This motif was inspired by the simulations of disease spread under different quarantine and social-distancing scenarios provided by the Washington Post in mid-March. The cello begins a simple tremolo, which spreads to the entire string section over the course of a few beats.

Taking these three elements, the piece spins off and develops each of them in turn. The pestilence motif is the most dependent of the three, constantly sparring with the other two as opposed to having its own independent presence. The work isn’t a narrative tone poem as much as it is a musical journey using the foundational images in musical development, although the direction as a whole is to move from uncertainty to victory. This work is dedicated to every hero who suffered as a result of the Coronavirus.

— A. K. Jaquith, 2020

Instrumentation: 3 Flutes and Piccolo, 3 Oboes and English Horn, 3 Clarinets and Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion, Harp, Celesta, Strings.

This work was premiered by the Dayton Philharmonic in November 2020 on a for-streaming concert. These performances are the world premiere of a new revised version for larger orchestra.

1809-1847

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

As a mature artist, Felix Mendelssohn was acclaimed throughout Europe as a composer and conductor, especially in his native Germany and in England, where he had a private audience with the young Queen Victoria, who sang for him after he had played for her. His untimely death from unknown causes created a profound shock, and Mendelssohn societies promoting his music and ideas quickly sprang up all over middle and northern Europe.

Fortunately for the development of Mendelssohn’s prodigious talents, his carefully selected teachers were strict and demanding. Even as a mature artist, he was extremely self-critical, constantly requesting feedback and carefully perfecting his compositions. The Concerto in E minor had a long gestation period. Mendelssohn started the concerto in 1838 but did not finish it until six years later. He wrote it for his friend, the famed violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873), concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig where Mendelssohn served as conductor from 1835 to 1843. The composer sought – and took – David’s advice on technical aspects throughout its composition. David finally premiered it in Leipzig in 1845, but Mendelssohn was ill and unable to attend. Now one of the staples of violin repertory, contemporaneous audiences considered the Concerto daring and innovative at the time of its composition.

From the first bar, the Allegro molto appassionato broke new ground. Instead of the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes, the violin enters at once with the principal theme on which the movement is built.

Mendelssohn gives the second part of the theme to the orchestra.

For the second theme, the roles are reversed, with the winds introducing the theme.

The cadenza, largely the creation of David, is placed unconventionally before the recapitulation. Relocating the cadenza away from its traditional place at the end of the movement stresses the continuity with the second movement, which follows without pause.

The Andante emerges out of a single quiet bassoon tone, emanating from the last chord of the opening movement. It is joined by other instruments for a short transitional passage,

after which the solo violin introduces the simple, almost religious theme.

The middle section in the minor mode turns slightly darker.

Another transition, based on the opening theme of the concerto,

leads into the Allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn saved the demonstration of the violin’s virtuoso possibilities for this sparkling Finale. After an orchestral fanfare for the winds,

containing a rhythmic motive that the composer reuses for throughout the movement as part of other themes, the soloist enters with a flourish followed by a delicate, dancing theme that dominates the movement and recalls the atmosphere of the teenaged composer's first great hit, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The orchestra answers with a development of the opening fanfare.

The soloist then plays a new, more lyrical melody – also based on the fanfare - in counterpoint with the first theme, now in the orchestra,

Later, their roles are reversed.

Instrumentation:2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, Timpani, Strings.

This work was last performed by the Dayton Philharmonic in January 2016 with Jessica Hung as soloist and Neal Gittleman conducting.

A portrait of composer Ludwig van Beethoven holding a score and pencil.
1770-1827

Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55

Few musical manuscripts have elicited so much musicological discussion as has Beethoven’s personal conductor’s copy of his Symphony No. 3. The story of its original dedication to Napoleon, the chief military defender of the French Revolution with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and the subsequent violent erasure of the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, has been told time and again.

Reality, however, is often more complex than history books would make it appear. Beethoven was clearly disgusted at Napoleon’s coronation, exclaiming: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man...become a tyrant.” But his disappointment was tinged in no small part by self-interest. Hoping at the time to establish a foothold in the musical life of Paris, the composer had planned to travel there with his mentor, Prince Lobkowitz, using the premiere of the Symphony as a passport to the French capital. Napoleon’s coup, and the resultant political upheavals, disrupted these plans and are the probable reason why the Symphony, finished at the beginning of 1804, did not receive its premiere in Vienna until a year later.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Symphony is how Beethoven – who had surprising difficulty coming up with melodies – was able to make so much out of so little. The opening theme is nothing more than an arpeggiated e-flat major chord; the Scherzo theme is a descending E-flat major chord; the Scherzo theme is a descending E-flat major scale; and the theme for the Finale is a simple bass pattern that he had used three times previously – in the Piano Variations, Op. 35, in one of his Contredanses (WoO 14, no. 7) and in the grand finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 – repeated beneath a set of spectacular variations. Only the second movement, the Funeral March, begins with a fully formed theme.

It is hard for us today to appreciate the revolutionary impact of this symphony on Vienna’s audience. The constantly modulating keys, rhythmic shifts, large dynamic leaps and unfamiliar harmonies baffled Beethoven’s friendly but conservative public, and the reception was anything but enthusiastic. It took a few years for the Viennese to warm to this innovative work.

Although it would take many pages of in-depth musical analysis to explain what was so different and disturbing about this Symphony, here are some highlights that we now take for granted after over 200 years of development and change in Western music.

To begin with, there is the sheer length and scope of the work. The first movement alone is longer than anything that had been written up to this time. And then there's Beethoven's treatment of themes. The opening of the Symphony contains as its first theme that simple E-flat major arpeggio, but appended to it one note that propels it into greatness.

What follows is a complex and, at times, astonishing key structure, whose wanderings and surprises blur the distinctions between the parts of sonata form. The movement contains no less than seven themes (some people count more). Here are the ones that Beethoven later develops.

and

The development section, however, introduces an entirely new theme in the minor mode that never appeared in the exposition.

Even though the theme is short, the change in mode is particularly stunning in view of the overwhelming number of major themes in the exposition. The movement's most significant surprise, however, is the appearance of the three-minute coda in a distant key.

The Andante, entitled “Funeral March for a Hero,” counters even the most poignant Mozartian second movement with a totally novel level of emotional intensity and grandeur.

Its middle section transcends tragedy to arrive at the triumph that gives the Symphony its moniker.

The Scherzo – an earlier Beethoven invention to replace the sometimes stately, sometimes thumping minuets of Mozart and Haydn – consists of a theme that is nothing more than a slightly decorated descending major scale.

Its trio scored for a sections solo for the horns.

Instead of creating a sprightly and upbeat rondo in the style of his predecessors, Beethoven gives a weight and importance to the Finale that would inspire both his own future symphonic writing (culminating in the Ninth Symphony) and that of his successors. The theme is nothing more than a skeleton, actually more a ground bass than a true melody.

The variations that constitute this lengthy movement are also new in structure. Whereas most sets of variations move steadily from the simple to the complex, Beethoven was less interested in bravura and ornamentation than in giving each variation its own mood, for which he also employed an innovative use of orchestral solos and ensembles. The first few variations are conventional, reinforcing the theme.

Then Beethoven relegates the theme to the bass, where it really belongs, the oboe melody over it sounding more like a true theme.

In fact, this was the theme Beethoven reused in The Creatures of Prometheus, mentioned above. While variation forms had tended to be somewhat static, adhering throughout to a single key and the same length as the theme, Beethoven includes variations in different keys and lengths, for example, this little fugue.

He even breaks away from the variations altogether in the middle of the movement.

Most important, however, is that the climax of the movement is not created by means of faster and faster demonstrations of technical virtuosity, but rather through increasing emotional intensity and grandeur.